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Ensuring Stories Endure

April 21, 2007
By ELIZABETH HAMILTON, Courant Staff Writer

Even Anne Frank's diary, as compelling as it is, couldn't compare to the face-to-face testimony Holocaust survivors Seena and Bernard Schwarz gave to four young actors with Hartford Children's Theatre.

The local actors, who range in age from 15 to 23, star in the upcoming production of "And Then They Came for Me - Remembering the World of Anne Frank." This play is based on the true stories of Anne and Holocaust survivors Eva Schloss and Ed Silverberg, who knew the famous diarist when they were children.

The young people each portray multiple roles, recreating Anne, Eva and Ed's stories of wartime hiding, family separation and capture. Eva and Ed, who are still alive, survived their experiences in Nazi death camps, whereas Anne did not.

To help them better understand their roles, the Jewish Federation of Greater Hartford teamed the actors with local Holocaust survivors as mentors.

Thursday, which happened to fall during the weeklong National Days of Remembrance, established by Congress to commemorate the six million Jews killed by Nazi Germany in World War II, was Seena and Bernard Schwarz's turn.

From the moment Seena Schwarz, 76, opened her mouth the actors were hooked.

"I was born in Belgium in 1931. We lived a pretty average life until the war came along," she said. "I say average life, I mean average life for Jews. Kids were able to push us around, call us dirty Jew, and that was even before the war."

But everything was relatively OK until May 10, 1940, when the war began in Belgium. Her family was not wealthy, she explained, so they didn't have the money to get on a train to France like some other Jewish families. So they walked.

"I was 8 years old. It was a great adventure for me because on the road I stopped and picked daisies, and we slept in abandoned big mansions in France, and we raided their wine cellars. We caught animals that had been abandoned, we caught them and killed them and ate them," she said.

Erik Bloomquist, 15, of Newington, was struck by this because of the thought he's put into playing the character of Ed Silverberg.

"When you talk about going toward France and picking the daisies, it reminds me that you were still a little girl," Erik said to Schwarz.

"Yes, yes, when I woke up in the morning and the bombs were falling I thought it was a thunderstorm," Schwarz said.

"I connected that with one of my characters because he has a crush on Anne Frank and he's still a kid," Erik said. "He still has stuff going on inside him, the world just doesn't stop. Even with all this horror going on around, he's still himself."

The Germans eventually caught up with Schwarz's family and the family had to return to Belgium, she said. What followed was a gradual, frightening transformation of daily life.

Schwarz's parents decided to send her away to protect her from being captured. First Schwarz went to an orphanage, where she became very ill. Then she was taken to a convent where she woke up from a fever, believing that she was surrounded by angels.

Instead, she was being cared for by nuns, who took extraordinary risk in sheltering 14 Jewish girls. Her older sister joined her there, and they were always afraid, thinking that every time the bell rang it was a Nazi soldier. A neighbor eventually turned the nuns in.

"One day while we were in school, the Gestapo came to the convent to get the children. Four of us were missing so they decided it would be easier to come back the following day," Schwarz said. The nuns were ordered to pack the children's things and have them ready to leave by the next morning.

The mother superior called members of an underground movement who agreed to smuggle the children away that night. Schwarz wasn't with the group, however, because her older sister, Gutki, who wasn't on the Gestapo's list, decided to sacrifice herself for her sister. Gutki braided her hair to look like her younger sister, gave Schwarz some money and "shoved me out the door," Schwarz said. She learned later that her father had already been captured by the Germans and taken to a concentration camp.

"I never saw him again," Schwarz said. "I have a book of all the people who died in the concentration camps and his name was there. He was a wonderful person, and that's the way it was."

Kimberly West, the play's director, said, "I have no idea what to say. I think about the children that I teach and it breaks my heart to think of a 10-year-old going through this."

Schwarz, matter of factly replied, "Two-year-olds, 3-year-olds, 4-year-olds, left without parents. It was a terrible time. It was another life."

"If we're going to be the last remaining philosophers and truly examine the human condition we cannot in good faith and good mind let this story be silenced," West said.

"That is a big problem because I am one of the last survivors," Schwarz said. "Afterward it will be that much easier to deny the whole thing."

"How can people deny it?" Erik asked, looking incredulous.

"But they do," Schwarz answered. "There's so much documentation of everything. The Germans were sticklers. They kept evidence of everything, but still there are people who deny it."

Schwarz and her mother and sister survived the Holocaust because of the kindness of strangers, she said.

Her husband, Bernard, also survived for this reason. His entire family was sent to concentration camps in France in 1940, but he was smuggled out two years later and eventually taken in by a non-Jewish family, who protected him from the Germans. His parents and younger brother all died in captivity.

Stefanie Seng, 23, of Middlebury, asked what ended up being the central question in the discussion.

"How, after seeing so much cruelty and seeing people do so many horrible things that seem so inhumane, how do you find the goodness in yourself and in what's around you," Seng asked. "How do you come out of that after the war and say people are good?"

"That's a very difficult thing to do," Seena Schwarz said. "After the war it was not possible. It took many years until the survivors were able to talk about it."

"I still can't talk about it," Bernard Schwarz, 77, said. "It's too painful."

"It never goes away?" Seng asked.

"No, it never goes away," Seena said. "And the same thing goes for religion. I have not been able to get [my faith] back. Where was God? There's no answer. Some of us have become more religious and some of us have just given up. "

Bernard has not given up.

"Why am I here? Why did I survive?" he said, looking up at the ceiling. "I can only point to God."

The Jewish Community Relations Council is sponsoring a free performance of "And Then They Came for Me" on May 3 at the Herbert Gilman Theater at the Mandell Jewish Community Center in West Hartford. For tickets or further information contact Karen Wyckoff at 231-6317. Mainstage performances at the Hartford Children's Theatre, 360 Farmington Ave., Hartford, run from April 27 to May 13. For tickets and more information, visit www.hartfordchildrenstheatre.org or call 249-7970.

Discussing The Holocaust
April 21, 2007
Stefanie Seng: "How, after seeing so much cruelty and seeing people do so many horrible things that seem so inhumane, how do you find the goodness in yourself and in what's around you? How do you come out of that after the war and say people are good?"

Seena Schwarz: "That's a very difficult thing to do. After the war it was not possible. It took many years until the survivors were able to talk about it."

Bernard Schwarz: "I still can't talk about it. It's too painful."

Stefanie: "It never goes away?"

Seena: "No, it never goes away."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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